Work Within and Outside Traditional Schooling

ednext-jan16-mcshane-coverThe Split Screen Strategy: How to turn education into a self-improving system
By Ted Kolderie
Beaver’s Pond Press, 2015, $24.50; 160 pages.

As reviewed by Michael McShane

Ted Kolderie has been working to redesign the American education system longer than I have been alive. He was instrumental in the creation of charter schools, which now number more than 6,000 and educate more than 2.5 million students. He has been a thoughtful contributor whose views often defy easy categorization. His new book, The Split Screen Strategy, continues his oeuvre. The “split screen” refers to Kolderie’s two-pronged approach to school reform, working within the existing system to try to make it better (what he calls “improvement”) while at the same time creating new systems to replace it (what he calls “innovation”).

The “innovation” screen, at its core, envisions a choice-driven school environment where teachers are in charge and are tasked with personalizing an education for every child in their charge. It gives them what Kolderie calls “meaningful authority,” not just to set the course of learning for students but to establish standards of practice for the professionals in their building. He sees innovative schools as led less by single administrators like principals and more by a “partnership” of top professionals (as found in law firms or health clinics). Accountability systems would likewise evolve to encompass a broader set of indicators to try to more thoroughly capture what it means to be an educated person. It is a system marked by iteration, feedback, and improvement, and driven by empowered students, families, and teachers.

Kolderie’s argument as laid out in this book raises three questions:

Question #1: Why split the screen?

On a fundamental level, Kolderie’s reform strategy makes a great deal of sense. The vast majority of children attend traditional public schools, and even with the growth of charter schools, publicly supported private schooling, and home schooling, the current system stands to remain the dominant educational modality for the foreseeable future. Any strategy that doesn’t have something to say about these children and these schools will be a call for “revolution at the margins.”

At the same time, it appears that Kolderie argues that our current system is “torqued out.” He seems to endorse former Minnesota Education Association president Bob Astrup’s argument that “as traditionally arranged the K‒12 system is giving us the most it can.” If this is the case, and there is evidence to support the claim, isn’t time spent on improving these institutions a waste? Shouldn’t all of our efforts be expended replacing the current system?

Question #2: What about risk?

Probably the most common critique of Kolderie’s vision will be that pursuing it is risky. He advocates moving large numbers of students and large amounts of money into unproven learning systems that have fewer guardrails to protect students and taxpayer dollars. More-motivated or connected parents will be better able to navigate this system and create for their children a higher-quality education than poorer or less-motivated parents. It risks widening educational inequality.

Those arguments don’t hold up. When evaluating Kolderdie’s proposed system, we have to ask, “compared to what?” Right now we have a system that greatly tilts the playing field in the direction of wealthy and motivated parents. The rich and middle class move to neighborhoods that have great schools. They spend extra money and time on tutors and enriching extracurricular activities. Motivated parents who don’t have money work to get their kids into magnet programs or into college-prep tracks within residentially zoned schools. In fact, Kolderie’s vision is less risky for poor families than our current system is, as it breaks down many of the walls that are currently keeping poor families out of good schools.

But risk, properly understood, still looms large in Kolderie’s vision. His newly reimagined system is a great opportunity for teachers to create schools and classes, free from bureaucratic meddling, but in order for the system to work, teachers will have to be comfortable with risk. They will have to be willing to put their “product” (for lack of a better term) out there for people to use or not use. That is a big ask. For all we complain about step-and-lane pay scales, defined benefit pensions, and multihundred-page collective bargaining agreements that spell out every minute of a teacher’s day, they provide a work environment that is light on risk. Moving to Kolderie’s nimble, agile, continuously improving system will require teachers and leaders who want to experiment, and fail, and iterate, and improve. It might very well require a major shift in the way we select, prepare, evaluate, and compensate teachers.

The leaders of Kolderie’s system would also need to be upfront with all involved that the purpose of this system is to drive experimentation and innovation. Failure is an essential part of experimentation, and so lots of the new curricula, learning systems, and teaching methods will founder. In fairness, schools to which students are residentially assigned often trot out a new math curriculum or new technology policy with parents having little to no say in those “experiments,” and many fail. The new system will only work if everyone is clear-eyed about the purpose and buys into what it is trying to do. Failure will happen, and we have to be honest about that.

Question #3 Do schools have a civic purpose?

The Achilles’ heel of any argument for substantially personalized learning is that we have a school system not simply for the benefit of individual students but also for the cultivation of our next generation of citizens. Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, as President Reagan once said, and our schools have to inculcate American values of tolerance, respect for others’ liberty, and civic engagement or we risk losing the very system that enables experimentation in the first place. Given that a recent Pew study reported that 40 percent of millennials think that the government should ban speech that is offensive to people, a course correction toward instilling fundamental American values might be in order.

Much of the talking past one another in contemporary American education discourse happens because many on the left see education entirely as a public good and many on the right see it entirely as a private good. Education is a mixed good; some of the benefits accrue to the individual, like increased earnings, better health, and a longer life, and some of the benefits accrue to society as a whole, like better civic engagement, more tax revenue, less crime, and less dependence on social welfare programs. An overly personalized system may tilt too far in the direction of private good, and risk eroding the values and institutions that protect the freedom of families to choose what is best for their children. Kolderie might spell out how his innovative system would still inculcate these values; its existence would depend upon them.

The Split Screen Strategy is a thought-provoking book that those looking to reform the education system should read. It is a continuation of Kolderie’s thoughtful commitment to education reform. I hope it sparks a dialogue about innovation and personalization, and their first- and second-order consequences.

Michael McShane is director of education policy at the Show Me Institute.

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